In the world of smartphones, there really isn’t much in the way of choice these days – you either use Android or you use iOS. Sure, we’ve seen challenges come and go, such as Windows Mobile, BlackBerry OS, Tizen, and Sailfish – but none of these have even come remotely close to challenging the supremacy of Google and Apple.
With that in mind, your options are somewhat limited when it comes to picking a new phone, even though Apple now offers more iPhone models than ever before and Google’s hardware ecosystem is practically limitless, thanks to the wide array of different companies that use its mobile OS.
I Started Life With Android But Finished With iPhone…
Despite this, I’ve found that as a mobile user, it’s hard not to feel constrained by the current market. To set the scene, I was an Android user first and foremost. I got the HTC Dream / T-Mobile G1 a decade ago, my first real taste of a proper smartphone. I appreciated Android’s flexibility and its connectivity with Google’s services – which I used on a daily basis – even though the hardware itself felt clunky and unappealing.
I decided to see what iOS was like and picked up the iPhone 3G; instantly, I could see the benefit of a single company controlling everything from the design of the handset to the software running it. Sure, there were annoying limitations, but everything worked so well I was almost blind to them.
Even though I would switch back to Android when the Nexus One arrived (and would slavishly purchase every Nexus device from that point onwards), there was always that niggle at the back of my mind. Even the Nexus line, which Google had strict control over, never really felt like it was in the same ballpark as Apple’s phones.
The thing is, there comes a time when you want to stop experimenting with your primary communications device and simply use it for what it was intended, and I think I’ve reached that point – for more reasons that one.
Can Google’s Pixel Phones Ever Take on Apple’s iPhone?
I was an iPhone 7 owner not so long ago, and after owning that phone for a year I’d finally come to realize that being an iOS user is like having a digital comfort blanket; sure, you give away certain freedoms and have to dance to Apple’s tune, but in doing so you remove a lot of the uncertainties that can come with Android ownership.
When I then shifted to a Galaxy S9 Plus, I was once again confronted with Android’s bizarre split personality; I had Google’s suite of apps directly competing with Samsung’s, all on the same handset. Even for a seasoned smartphone user, it started to become too irritating to put up with.
After the Galaxy S9 Plus, I vowed that I would stick with ‘pure’ Android devices in the future, which left a clear choice. Google’s new Pixel range is pitched as the company’s rival to the iPhone, as it controls every element of the device and it, therefore, won’t be saddled with manufacturer bloatware and gimmicky one-off hardware features that aren’t part of the ‘core’ Android experience.
I chose the Pixel 3, and as I have hands that even a Hobbit would find dainty, that left me with one solid option: the standard, no-XL variant. As you’ll know if you read our review, I loved the phone to bits. The design is great, it’s lightning-fast and the camera simply blows away the competition.
However, I’ve had one key problem with the phone, and it’s an issue that neatly sums up the difference between Apple and Google.
Google Pixel 3 Problems (There’s Just Too Many…)
The first model I had suffered from a pink gradient on the bottom of the display which, once I’d seen, I couldn’t un-see, no matter how hard I tried. A replacement was quickly dispatched, only for the previously-documented ‘flickering screen’ issue to raise its ugly head – a problem that refused to budge even after the latest firmware update. Those of you with long memories will recall that this same problem existed on the Pixel 2 XL, and the reason is that both that phone and the smaller Pixel 3 use an OLED display produced by LG (the Pixel 2 and Pixel 3 XL use a Samsung panel and don’t appear to have this problem). LG’s track record with smartphone OLEDs is pretty much terrible.
Google’s response seems to be another replacement phone, but I’ve read reports that even replacement handsets are exhibiting the issue. So, it is with a heavy heart that my second Pixel 3 has been returned to the manufacturer and I’ve instead switched to the only phone on the market of the same value that can do everything that I want but isn’t an Android device coating in a custom UI skin – and that’s the iPhone XR. In short, Google’s manufacturing problems have forced me back into the bosom of Apple.
Sure, I could have waited. I’m sure Google will eventually fix the issues with the Pixel 3, perhaps via software (which seems unlikely as the issue appears to be hardware-related) or via recall and replacement approach. But the fact is, I don’t want a replacement Pixel 3, as the whole experience has left a sour taste in my mouth. Sure, Google is taking the right steps here (this year’s Pixels aren’t made by OEM companies, but designed by Google and made by Foxconn, the same company that produces the iPhone for Apple) and its recent acquisition of a whole bunch of HTC staffers proves the firm is serious about creating a true Apple rival.
However, the Pixel 3 has been beset by a whole host of issues outside of the screen, including missing text messages, non-functional cameras, and phantom notches. The flickering screen problem – which essentially makes the phone completely unusable unless you want to be blinded by flashing lights – was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back for me personally.
Why Can’t Google Make Quality Phones Like Apple?
When I invest in a piece of technology that costs over £700, I don’t expect to have these kinds of problems, and, while Apple is certainly a long way from being totally infallible in this regard (remember Antennagate?), it does seem to have a much higher standard of quality when it comes to manufacturing, and in that respect at least goes some way to justifying the high prices it places on its devices.
Google’s approach used to be different; it offered its Nexus phones at a slightly lower price than Apple, making my buying options much easier. I was happy to take a hit in some regards in order to save some pennies. Now, with the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL almost as expensive as Apple’s top-tier phones (and the same price as the superb iPhone XR), that’s a harder choice to make – but as I said, my hand has been forced by irksome production problems for which there doesn’t appear to be a solution for, at least at the time of writing.
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If Google is deadly serious about challenging the iPhone for mindshare, then it really needs to up its game. This was my first experience with a Pixel device and the fundamentals are all in place, but it’s that all-important attention to detail that seems to be lacking. LG’s screens ruined things for many Pixel 2 XL owners last year, so why use them again in 2018?
Apple also uses LG for the iPhone XS, but there have been no reports of the issue being present on that phone, which would suggest that Apple is perhaps a little more discerning when it comes to which panels it will accept and reject.
It’s that attention to detail which allows the iPhone to remain a premium product and keeps phones like the Pixel 3 in the shadows. I hope Google can raise its game for the Pixel 4, but I may take some convincing to return to the Android fold after this latest disappointment.
Damien McFerran has been covering phones and mobile technology for well over a decade. An Android specialist, as well as an expert reviewer of phones, Damien is one of the best technology journalists working today. He is also editorial director over at the excellent Nintendo Life.